Court-Martial Begins for Soldier Refusing Iraq Deployment

ByABC News
February 5, 2007, 5:47 PM

Feb. 5, 2007— -- Almost 90 soldiers from the Fort Lewis Army base south of Seattle have lost their lives in Iraq, but it is the fate of one soldier who refuses to fight that has tempers in the community flaring.

First Lt. Ehren Watada said the war in Iraq is illegal and he won't go. His court-martial began today. Watada will be tried for refusing to deploy to Iraq with his unit and for "conduct unbecoming an officer" for his many public statements against the war.

Watada claims "the wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible and moral injustice but a contradiction to the Army's own law-of-land warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes."

Freedom of speech is not absolute in the military. Officers can't make public statements threatening the president or encouraging other soldiers to disobey orders. Watada is the first officer to publicly refuse orders to go to Iraq, and he has become a cause célébre among anti-war activists, politicians and movie stars, including Sean Penn, who stood at the entrance to Fort Lewis in support of Watada.

Since he announced his decision to refuse deployment last spring, the defiant lieutenant has packed standing-room-only speaking engagements for months. One of his supporters, Maggie Lawless, said, "He's being made an example by the government, but he's also an example for why you need to stand up for what you believe in."

While some anti-war activists consider Watada a hero for refusing to go to Iraq, the Army and some veterans accuse him of betraying fellow soldiers.

One veteran Jeff Bringham said, "He accepted a commission in the U.S. Army, and he swore an oath. And he has reneged on that oath."

Watada's chief argument that the war itself is illegal will not be allowed in court. One military scholar, Eugene Fidell, said the Army's case is simple: "We don't permit soldiers to pick and choose what war they're going to fight in."

The court-martial is expected to finish before the week's end. Watada's fate will be decided by a jury of fellow officers, and if found guilty on any charge, the court-martial will begin its second phase to determine the length of his sentence. If Watada is found guilty, the 28-year-old could spend up to four years in prison.